Vulnerable India 2: Beneath the veneer

The polishing of India’s image in the recent past appears to be slowly erasing an integral truth about the country. ‘India Shining’ and ‘Incredible India’ at home, the country is commonly referred to as an ‘emerging economy’, a ‘key/large developing country’, and even a ‘major economy’ in the global arena, particularly in the context of the international climate change negotiations. ‘Vulnerable India’ – a country with more poor people than all the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) put together – is acknowledged less often in India and abroad.

The ‘major economy’ avatar is partly a reflection of India’s rise in economic status in recent years, no doubt – but it is also partly due to a methodical ‘induction’ into a Big Boys Club where India was a willing, if ill-advised, conscript.

Welcome to the club

The process started when India and the other ‘key’ developing countries (China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico, subsequently dubbed the ‘Outreach 5’ or O5), were invited to participate in the ultimate Big Boys Club – the G8 Summit in 2003, and again in 2005. At the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit, an “informal G8 dialogue with the O5 on energy and global warming” was launched. The US Presidential website trumpeted this as a Summit that, “… for the first time, included developing nations in climate discussions (and) reached consensus on an approach to climate change that joins together developed and developing countries”. The next G8 Summit in 2007, in Heiligendamm, Germany, went a step further – it resulted in a Joint Statement by the German Presidency and the O5 Heads of State, calling on all parties to actively and constructively participate in the negotiations on a comprehensive agreement at the 2007 climate conference in Indonesia.

In a parallel process, in September 2007, former US President George Bush had launched his major economies initiative, and hosted the First Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change (MEM). Barack Obama continued the tradition with the ‘Major Economies Forum on energy and climate’ (MEF), formed in March 2009. Despite its continuing protestations that climate negotiations must be carried out in a UN forum, India nevertheless signed on to this new group, whose goal was quite clearly to promote the US governments efforts towards “à la carte multilateralism” focusing on smaller, less formal frameworks as an alternative to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The image of India as a major economy and a major “emitter-on-the-run” was further sealed in 2009 when, in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference, it joined up with Brazil, South Africa and China to form the BASIC group (basically the G8’s O5, minus Mexico – the latter was part of the OECD).

A small matter of the price

India’s willingness to engage in these “minilateral negotiating frameworks” where poor and vulnerable countries were not present cost it its credibility as a leader of the developing world, particularly of poor developing countries. The negotiating groups of the poor and vulnerable countries in the UN negotiations, including the LDCs, the Africa Group and the Alliance of Small Island States, felt let down as India distanced itself from the cause of the most vulnerable, and sought instead to engage with the heavyweights.

The country that had played a key role in bridging differences between the developed, developing and most vulnerable countries for agreement on the UNFCCC’s Berlin Mandate in 1995 appeared to have turned its back to the poor. This perception was graphically portrayed during the 2011 Durban conference in a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times placed by an international non-government organisation, where India joins the US, Canada and Japan as the Grim Reaper, willing to sign the death sentence for Africa (see below). The advertisement was in response to the perception in Durban that India was an obstacle in the adoption of more stringent mitigation targets (more in this blog).

The Financial Times advertisement during the Durban conference

The Financial Times advertisement during the Durban conference

Among the most vulnerable

In truth, India was in danger of signing its own death sentence in Durban. A recent note by the World Bank puts India on the top of the list of 10 countries with the largest share of the global extreme poor – a shocking 33%, compared to China, second on the list, with 13% (see below). This 33% is more than the percentage of poor in all the LDCs put together (21.2%) or Africa (23.3%).

Source: World Bank (2014). Prosperity for all: Ending extreme poverty. A note for The World Bank Group Spring Meetings 2014.

Partly as a result of the high levels of poverty, India has been consistently ranked among the top most vulnerable countries to climate change impacts. For instance, Maplecroft’s 2011 Climate Change Vulnerability Index ranked India as the second most vulnerable country in the world, second to Bangladesh, in a list of countries considered at “extreme risk” from climate impacts. The 2012 DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor warns that the United States, China and India in particular are expected to incur enormous losses of US$ 2.5 trillion collectively in economic costs, and over 3 million deaths per year – the majority in India and China.

An analysis of the data used by DARA  to compare India’s vulnerability with other regions or negotiating blocks indicates that India fares as badly as the LDCs and Africa in some parameters (total costs due to sea level rise, weather and economic stress), better in some and worse in others (desertification, and total excess mortality due to health impacts and weather disasters).

India compared to the rest of the developing world: Total excess mortality, desertification and costs due to climate change. Source: Müller, B (2012). Presentation made at a meeting on India and Equity, What now? organised by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Desertification, excess mortality and total costs due to climate change

India compared to the developed world: Total excess mortality, desertification and costs due to climate change. Source: Müller, B (2012). Presentation made at a meeting on India and Equity, What now? organised by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.



health impacts

Source: Müller, B (2012). Presentation made at a meeting on India and Equity, What now? organised by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Become a constructive, rather than obstructive, force

India, as the figures above show, has a lot more in common with LDCs and Africa than it has with the G8 or even the G20 in the climate context. Yet mitigation dominates India’s climate change agenda in the UNFCCC negotiations, with much less attention to  adaptation. This is perhaps necessarily so, as a defensive reaction to the international community’s demands that as a major economy and major emitter, India must take on emissions reductions. But to protect its own poor, India must become a constructive rather than obstructive force in the mitigation negotiations, while working with other poor and vulnerable countries to get a strong deal on adaptation and loss and damage.

Former environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan made an impassioned speech on the imperative for protecting India’s poor at the Durban conference. In the absence of a proactive proposal on how to do so, it came across as hollow rhetoric. It is hoped that on the road to the 2015 Paris conference, where a new climate agreement is expected, India will put forward just such a proposal. The 500 million in India grappling with climate impacts in addition to their poverty must be adequately represented in India’s domestic and foreign policy.

At the same time, however, the international community must understand India’s situation – and not ask more than they would of other countries with similar levels of poverty. There is a perception that India has a large and rich middle class on the one hand, and the very poor on the other. In fact, as the figure below shows, Indians are only 0.9% of the top 10% of the global rich, compared to 1.1% in the LDCs and 1.1% in Africa – although there is no denying the need for greater equality domestically, as we shall see in subsequent blogs in this series.

India's comparative vulnerability

Source: Müller, B (2012). Presentation made at a meeting on India and Equity, What now? organised by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.










(This blog is based on a forthcoming working paper for the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)



This entry was posted in Global governance, Green Climate Fund, India, Poverty, Sustainable Development Goals, UNFCCC and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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